I’ve written this many times, but it needs to be written again: The institutions of democracy are only as strong as the people who run them. Before Donald Trump, we tended to think that because these institutions have been around for so many years, they’re sturdy and stable and one man can’t destroy them in a mere four years.
But now we’ve learned that no institution of democracy is inherently stable or strong. They’re only as strong as the people who are in charge of them. The special counsel’s office can be strong. But Robert Mueller decided, at the moment his nation needed him most, to be weak. Congress can be a strong check on presidential power. But Republicans have turned that to mush. The Department of Justice can also be a strong defender of democratic principle against an abusive president. But Bill Barr is a fascist.
Now, let’s consider the Commission on Presidential Debates. This, of course, is the bipartisan organization that sponsors and makes the rules for our debates. It consists of three co-chairs, five honorary co-chairs (two of whom are dead), a chairman emeritus, 10 board members, and an executive director. That’s 17 people, excluding the two deceased. And if their hair is not on fire today, they are not only sleepwalking. They’re actively helping to suffocate our democracy.
Trump didn’t just smash the debate format to pieces last night, a format that candidates of both parties have honored for 60 years. He used the debate—a small-d democratic forum if ever there was one—to foment the destruction of democracy.
There is, for any clear-eyed person, no possible alternative conclusion anymore. He knows he is losing. He is terrified, partly because he doesn’t want to be a loser—he has contempt for losers, like the people who fight for their country and the people who pay taxes; but mostly because he understands that there’s a decent chance once he’s no longer president that he’s going to prison.
In some ways, the ironies here are deliciously funny. He ran not wanting to win. He ran, we now know, because the Apprentice gravy train dried up, and he needed a way to freshen up the brand, and as Michael Wolff wrote in his first book, Trump was hoping to run fairly competitively and lose having added some value to his name. But he won. And when you’re president, suddenly new rules apply to you, and no matter how much you subvert and flout them, eventually they catch up, or threaten to. So now he’s a cornered rat. His vanity might land him in the hoosegow.
It would be deliciously funny, except for the reality he is imposing on the country, which is that he will destroy it to avoid his fate. He is trying to create chaos around the voting so that he can maybe cheat his way in for another four years. And then, during those four years, he will try to find a way to run a third time, or perhaps just cancel presidential elections altogether, because being in the White House is his only insurance against winding up in the big house.
So he will do anything to wreck democracy. And he is using the platform of the presidential debates to do it.
The commission should be mortified, alarmed—and enraged.
Here’s who those people are. The co-chairs are Frank Fahrenkopf, corporate lawyer and former chair of the RNC back in the Reagan days; Dorothy Ridings, president of the Council on Foundations; and Kenneth Wollack, former president of the National Democratic Institute.
The honorary chairs are all the former presidents (including Reagan and Ford), and the emeritus chair is Paul Kirk, former DNC chairman who filled in briefly as Massachusetts senator after Ted Kennedy died. The board of directors are as follows: John Danforth, former GOP senator from Missouri; Charles Gibson, ex- of ABC News; John Griffen, managing director of Allen & Co; Yvonne Hao of Cove Hill Partners, a private equity firm; Jane Harman, the former Democratic representative who now runs the Woodrow Wilson Center; Antonia Hernandez, who heads a large California foundation; the Rev. John I. Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame; Newton Minow, who chaired the FCC under—wait for it—John F. Kennedy and who coined the term “vast wasteland” to refer to television back then; Dick Parsons, longtime cable executive who was once a pal of Rudy Giuliani; and Olympia Snowe, the former Maine senator.
If your heart sank while you were reading that list, well, mine did too earlier today. I’m sure many of these folks are fine people. But do they understand what is happening here? Does the commission’s executive director, a woman named Janet H. Brown? In 2016, when a lot of people were arguing that debate moderators that year should fact-check false comments by the candidates if they knew the comments to be false, Brown said no: “I don't think it's a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica.”
Wednesday morning I emailed the commission three questions:
1. Will the commission be meeting today or soon to discuss last night? And who will meet, the board of directors?
2. Will you consider turning off microphones at the coming debates?
3. Will you consider calling off the coming debates, given that the president obviously intends to wreck the format and process?
I said my deadline was noon, by which time no answers arrived.
UPDATE: The commission did release a statement right after this column initially posted, which reads as follows: “The Commission on Presidential Debates sponsors televised debates for the benefit of the American electorate. Last night’s debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues. The CPD will be carefully considering the changes that it will adopt and will announce those measures shortly. The Commission is grateful to Chris Wallace for the professionalism and skill he brought to last night’s debate and intends to ensure that additional tools to maintain order are in place for the remaining debates.”
We'll see what that means. It's good that they're doing something, but if it's not serious, if they let Trump trample on this precious piece of our democratic process, they are part of the problem. They own, in essence, a vital institution of our democracy. It is clear that Donald Trump is abusing that institution to convince people of a crisis with respect to voting that does not or need not exist in order to regain the presidency by any anti-democratic means necessary.
Again: Democratic institutions are only as strong as the people who run them. They must be defended against those who would attack them. Will these 14 people defend this institution? Or will they join the long list of those who’ll say next year, “Gee, I didn’t really think this would happen”?